Canoe/Kayak to Channel Islands

Warm greetings from England!

2 years ago I visited the beautiful state of California and did a short harbour paddle in Santa Barbara, our excellent guide told me about kayaking to the Channel islands.

I’ve contacted several companies who do canoe/kayak hire but none seem to do 3 day kit hire.
So I’ve come on here to seek advice from people who do this sort of thing all the time and know Cali a lot better than i do, so here’s my questions;

  1. Has anyone kayaked to the Channel islands and camped there? (is it even possible?)

  2. Can anyone recommend a 4 day, 3 night canoe/kayak adventure in California?

  3. When camping, are there any spiders or similar we need to be wary of?

  4. Canoe/kayaking in San Fransisco harbour - are there places to wild camp?

  5. If we visit next Sept, can we meet up with some of you?

Any advice, guidance, suggestions or views would be gratfully received and many thanks in advance.

Many thanks


PS I f-wording LOVE California! :hugs:

What are your skills? Crossing to Channel Islands or even just paddling inside SF Bay with all its crazy currents and winds can be challenging.

Yes, it is possible to paddle to/from Channel Islands and camp. Done reasonably often in sea kayaks. 10+ mile crossing one way, with some currents and crossing a major shipping channel. What might be easier, though, would be to take the ferry out to Santa Cruz island and camp and do day trips.

4 day/3 night trips that come to mind:

  • a stretch of the Lost Coast by kayak - exposed coastal conditions, but a classic.
  • a stretch of Big Sur by kayak - exposed coastal conditions, but a classic
  • the upper part of Sacramento River (Redding to as far as Chico) by kayak or canoe. Some minor rapids.

Not much dangerous when camping. In regularly used campsites, aggressive raccoons are the biggest annoyance. On Channel Islands, there is an endemic, miniature fox that holds this role.

There are places people wild camp in SF Bay, but none are legal, so always on the down low. There are a few legal sites around also, which require reservations. Most are listed on this site: EXPLORE THE BAY | Bay Water Trail. Our winds, currents, and waves get rather large, so sea kayaks or sit on tops are the norm. Canoes and recreational kayaks are not recommended for open bay paddles. For NorCal coastal paddles or central SF bay paddle, some sort of thermal protection (wet suit or dry suit) is the norm year round (the inner bay away from the mouth does warm in summer and fall, so may not be needed).


Hello Peter and many thanks for responding and advice

Our skills - 10 years experience of tidal estuary paddling, Algonquin and Finland lakes multi day adventures. We enjoy wild camping where possible and have been in some tight situations regarding white tops and tidal currents.

10+ mile paddle to Channel island is prolly not for us tho! We did a road trip of the Big Sur and the rip tides and powerful waves were impressive and a bit scary so your advice has confirmed my concerns abt paddling to Channel Islands.

Santa Cruz island - they do kayak hire there? camping - is there a waiting first come first served arrangement like on the mainland? (2 years ago I tried so many camp sites but they were booked up in seconds).

SF Bay is an amazing place, but from the look of it and your advice, its going to be hard work.

Redding sound pretty cool tho, in your opinion, which is the best camping and canoe adventure you would choose from your list?

23 nautical miles from Santa Barbara Harbor to Prisoners Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.

12 nautical miles from Oxnard (Channel Islands Harbor) to the camps on Anacapa Island.

Island Packers site about rental kayaking opportunities out at the Channel Islands

One recounting of the crossing from Santa Barbara I found in my bookmarks

1 Like

I am guessing with your saying “kayak hire” that you are coming from Europe?

Camping on Santa Cruz island is by reservation. I think it is a state park. I think the local outfitter on the island may only do day tours, not rentals, but not sure about that.

The easiest paddling skills-wise of the trips would be the Sacramento River from Redding to Chico. Could be done in kayak or canoe. Have to set a shuttle for the one way trip. There is a company in Redding where you may be able to hire boats - Headwaters Adventure Company. Perhaps even arrange with them transport.

Big Sur and Lost Coast are both exposed ocean paddling, and logistically challenging (limited access and camp beaches). But beautiful to do, if you can.

When you get closer to coming here (like a month out or so), drop me a message and I can see about connecting you with folks local to your itinerary for day paddles. The local clubs are usually pretty good about putting together trips with folks from out of town.

1 Like

Peter is an excellent source for info and very experienced coastal paddle. In September conditions are usually fairly benign, but a very good chance of very strong off shore winds and wild fires. This is a particularly bad year for wild fires so be prepared to alter plans. Kayaking on your own to or around any of the islands would require that you have very good ocean paddling experience.

  1. Has anyone kayaked to the Channel islands and camped there? (is it even possible?) Yes
  2. Can anyone recommend a 4 day, 3 night canoe/kayak adventure in California? As mentioned Santa Cruz has interesting sea caves and campgrouonds. Anacapa is closest to land but requires a very interesting scramble up a ladder when landing. Beautiful Island and camp site. Catalina Island is about 22 miles from the Long Beach harbor but it’s easier to get camping sites there. Also interesting to circumnavigate the Island. All of the outfitters I have done trips from the coast to the islands are out of business, so I am not much help getting you lined up.
  3. When camping, are there any spiders or similar we need to be wary of? Most of southern california have black widow spiders, I’m not sure if they are on the islands, they hide in wood piles and they don’t go looking for trouble. Although there are several sites on the islands named Scorpion, I never have seen them on any of the islands. ( I lived in Tucson and have a lot of respect for Scorpions.) There are rattlesnakes on Catalina Island and snakes that look like rattlesnakes on some of the other islands, but they are harmless.
  4. Canoe/kayaking in San Fransisco harbour - are there places to wild camp? No not unless you go commando camping which I don’t suggest, it’s a very urban area and places to camp are probably very unsafe. There used to be several nice campgrounds on the coast south of San Francisco, you would want to check out the CA State Park Websites to see if you can make reservations.
  5. If we visit next Sept, can we meet up with some of you? would be good to meet up with him. I’m in Northern San Diego County coastal area, and mostly surf kayak lately. I can meet if you are interested in paddling the sea caves in lajolla or kayak surfing.

Some alternative experiences - You can do tours of the Elkhorn Slough near Monterrey Bay with kayak rentals from Kayak Connection. Slough sounds terrible but it’s a very nice area, easy paddling, and very likely to see lots of sea life (sea lions, birds, otters).

Sea Caves with Central Coast Kayaks near Pismo Beach.
Sea Caves in Lajolla or Lajolla Cove paddling, best place to rent or take tour is with Jenn Kleck’s company. The guides are well trained.

1 Like

If you decide to take the ferry to Catalina and paddle around its shoreline, do your trip planning well in advance. Catalina has a plethora of rules and regs and fees that go beyond those of anywhere else I’ve visited.

For example, if you wish to do some cycling, there’s a fee just to ride beyond a small area.

It is beautiful and I would like to go again, but I remember that the logistics for doing anything else but a packaged mainstream-hotel stay took days to work out. We stayed at a motel for some of our visit and camped at a developed campground for some of it. We got around on foot when not renting the (SOT) kayaks right on site.

When we checked out the boat-in dispersed campsites for a future trip, we were aghast at the amount of human and dog feces and trash left by the “campers.” Definitely not Leave No Trace boaters.

I heartily second SeaDart’s recommendation of Jen Kleck’s outfit!

1 Like

Good morning Porkrind,

Thank you for the links and great recounting of crossing the SB channel!

Good morning Peter
We’re coming from England, I used ‘kayak’ as in sea kayak or sit on top kayak (usually we canoe everywhere in coastal/estuary waters).

We have the same interchangeable descriptions of kayaks/canoes on this side of the Atlantic! :grinning:

Thank you for the link, Redding appears to be the only place in CA for canoe trails?
Eel River in Hombolt County looks interesting have you heard of paddling trails in this area?

I would love to paddle the Big Sur, not heard of the Lost Coast, this might have to be a separate adventure of the day trip variety, I’m guessing you’ve done these?

Thank you for the offer of connecting me with local folks and clubs, its very much appreciated.

Travel during these ‘challenging’ times is far from certain but we (me and 2 friends) hope the situtation will be ok by Sept 22.

Good morning SeaDart,

Excellent detailed info abt camping on the Channel Islands, Anacapa landing sounds a bit scary. Our paddling experience is mostly in canoes, we’ve been in some tights spots in the past but from what you and everyone else are saying is we’d need sea kayaks to reach the islands safely or at least get there in good time.

Shame abt SF harbour, though understandable, crossing the Golden Gate bridge last year and the Bay by ferry from Sausalito, the waters looked very changeable and windy, but dramatic and beautiful, hence my wondering abt camping spots but if you guys cant find anywhere then a visitor definitely wont.

We wanted to visit San Diego as many people we met on our road trip recommended visiting, so we’d be delighted to take up your kind offer of showing us Lajolla and kayak surfing - yes please.

Elkhorn Slough looks amazing (like most of CA), we have a Slough in England and its a right dump (where The Office was set). Thank you for the links and all of your advice, we hope to maybe see you in Sept 22.

Good morning pikabike

Thank you for your advice, its sounds like Catalinas rule makers really love making rules!

Your experience sounds like a mixed bag, out of interest, Catalina island population - is it bohemian or is it retired, wealthy people?

It looks stunning and possibly exclusive.


For a Canadian Canoe type run, the Sacramento river from Redding to Chico would be a classic run. I think the Owens Valley near Bishop has some good water for a trip like this. Or lower Colorado River

The Eel River is more of a white water run, so most do it in white water kayaks. It is very dependent on rain, which we have not had a lot of, so not sure about how runable it will be.

There are various articles in California Kayaker Magazine you may want to read to get some background. California Kayaker Magazine - South West's source for paddlesports information. Issue #3 had an article on Channel Islands, #8 had an article on Big Sur, #9 on Eel River, etc.

Catalina is indeed stunning. When we stepped off the ferry, we could see the iconic bright orange Garibaldi (CA state fish) below in the crystalline water. Beautiful.

Yes, it is a playground of the wealthy. This hits you in the face at Avalon, which has sort of a Mediterranean look. Yet there is plenty to do for ordinary folk. The lines waiting to board the ferry (apparently mainly locals taking day or weekend trips) attest to that. We liked the developed campground near Two Harbors, because it was quiet (this was NOT in summer) and the dark sky allowed me to pick out all the stars in the Pleiades.

Paddling even the rented SOTs was a hoot, because there were some swells when we got a bit farther from shore, and the small surf we encountered was fun. The BEST thing of all, though, was the snorkeling. We would hang out with the fish “herds”, letting the ocean’s surging back and forth push us seemingly dangerously close to the rocks, and then miraculously getting swept back just as the fish were—all by just hanging loose and maybe giving a little kick or two of the flippers when prudent.

Of all the activities and places I would choose first if I could teleport myself there right now, snorkeling at Catalina is IT.

Wow, it sounds like I imagined it (and google earthed), a magical place albeit for the wealthy to live on.

If i had a teleport I’d defo take your recommendation!

Thank you for your insight, local knowledge from real people who’ve experienced it priceless

Awesome advice Peter - thank you!

I’ll check out the Californian Kayaker articles, it’ll be a pleasure to read!

As you’re the expert and highly recommended by others;

Redding - Chico, do you know if its wild camping territory or campsite only?

Can you recommend any YouTube videos or YouTube channels which have covered Sacramento River? (the ones I’ve found don’t really show the wild camping, paddlers perspective)

I’ll check out the Californian Kayaker articles, it’ll be a pleasure to read!

Haven’t actually done it myself, but I believe most who do it on their own just commando camp on beaches or the shore. Sounds like it isn’t that hard to find places to camp. Never heard of any issues, but of course best if in shore to stay in river bed area (not go onto what will be farm land) and if building a fire, keep in mind what type of fire season it is (generally bad summer and fall).

The few videos I have seen on Youtube seem to focus on the paddling. I reviewed them to get a feel for type of river paddling it would be, as one of these days I plan to do it (but not stopping in Chico - instead paddle all the way to San Francisco).

hello Peter
Thank you for the info, again, very much appreciated!

Understood abt fire season, I’d guess fire is a bigger worry than any earthquake in Cali.

Doing Sacramento river all the way to SF sounds like an awesome adventure, we’d happily join you!

UK is opening up now (tho not many countries want to reciprocate atm) so hopefully by Sept next year the situation will be as normal as it can be eg - flying to California without quarantine.

Take care Peter and I hope I get to meet you one day

I live in the greater Oxnard area. If you make it out here and want to paddle drop me a line as the time nears

1 Like

A small note: The northeast coast of the US is also a beautiful place to paddle. There are many people on here who are very knowledgeable about that area .

1 Like

A bit late to the party, but hopefully some useful info.

As mentioned, SF Bay is probably best for day paddles - lots of options there, but you’ll need to be aware of and mind the currents, winds, and large vessels in the bay. Check in with a local kayaking store, or with locals - members, for more details.

Camping around it isn’t really a good idea due to the urban nature, homeless situation, crime/criminals, etc., etc…

Tomales Bay might be an option though, since if I recall correctly, there is camping in, or near there. It is just a bit north of SF Bay, on the coast. The bay is much smaller than SF Bay and you’ll need to mind the tides due to the mud. Nearby Bodega Bay and waters around there are another option too, though it is on the exposed coast, and like SF Bay, can get quite windy and choppy. There is a campground right at the bay, but make sure to reserve well in advance.

There is good recreational fishing at both.

I’ve only been to Catalina in the off-season, and we stayed at the north end of the island, at Two Harbors (as opposed to Avalon, which is the main port). We stayed in the “cabins” there, which are pretty primitive, and no indoor cooking is permitted. Basically, a roof over your head and a bed. You need to bring your own bedding - sheets, pillow cases (possibly pillows - I can’t recall for sure), blankets, etc…

We used that as a launch point for short paddles along the very scenic shores, as well as for extending our range for snorkeling around the island. It worked great, and the underwater scenery was wonderful. Recommended.

I’ve also stayed in Avalon at a small B&B briefly, and it was nice too, though a lot more expensive than the cabin. If you want restaurant options, this is the better location for you on the island. Again, the snorkeling and diving there is great, as is exploring along the shore.

We didn’t do any hiking or biking into the interior, but you can do that as well.

I’d like to go back, and explore the shore more extensively, including the backside (Western shore) of the island one day, though waves and swells on that side are generally larger, since it faces the open sea.

The ferries to the island permit you to carry full-length, rigid kayaks on them (by hand carry, since no vehicles are permitted from the mainland onto the ferry). An extra fee is required to be paid for this, of course. A folding kayak would be very useful here too, if you have one of those. Don’t forget your snorkeling gear.

I’ve also been diving in the Channel Islands, and on one trip back to shore the winds kicked up and the swells were 8’ - 10’ high, which was scary enough on a mid-sized, commercial, sleep-on-board dive boat, about 70 feet long. I can’t imagine being in a sea kayak in waters like that, far from shore.

I’ve paddled part of the Sacramento River - upper, from a dam above Chico, to that town, and it was nice. Paddling all the way to SF Bay could be done, but the lower portion of the Sac River (from Sacramento to the SF Bay) would probably be tedious, not as scenic as the upper portion, and very hot in the Summer (best to do this in the Fall, Winter, or early Spring).

Much of the lower Sac is bounded by tall levies, so much if not all you will see along a lot of sections of that I suspect will be dirt berms. Not exactly what most people are interested in.

Another possible option would be to paddle Lake Tahoe in the Summer, since the lake is beautiful, with a nice backdrop of the surrounding mountains. 72 miles of shoreline, and some campgrounds along the way, though there are long stretches of shore between them, so you might have to commando camp a couple of nights, or have someone meet you with a vehicle to pull out nightly, and then return to re-start at your stopping point the next day.

I imagine you could probably paddle the entire periphery in 3 - 5 days, depending upon how quickly you want to paddle, and if the weather cooperates. There is not a bad spot on the lake, as far as the scenery goes, since if you find some sections of the shore boring, just raise your gaze and enjoy the beautiful mountains and sky.

For day paddles there, Emerald Bay (southwest part of the lake), and Sand Harbor (northeast part of the lake) are best. For Emerald Bay, you’ll need to put it nearby, at DL Bliss State Park, or at a point south of the bay (Camp Richardson or Pope Beach), since the path down to it is a very steep, mile long walk from the parking lot down to the water at Emerald Bay. You can park right at Sand Harbor if you get there early enough, but it is very crowded and parking closes early, so get there before they open in the morning.

I wish the public authorities at/around the lake would make a Kayak Trail with evenly spaced camping and put in/pull out options to facilitate kayaking there.

At the lake, in the afternoon, the winds can kick up quickly, and there are occasional thunderstorms too, so you’ll need to watch the weather and be aware of this. The winds are more of a concern on the eastern side of the lake, and white caps and 4’ waves/swells can occur on the lake.

Tahoe is a lot more commercialized on the SE side of the lake, especially near state-line, and it gets millions of visitors annually, so you’ll need to make your reservations and plans early.

I tried getting a campground this Summer, without success, since ALL the Covid shut-ins were tired of that and booked them up. Apparently, you can now make reservations 6 months of advance, and it seems you need to do that on the day of the 6 month deadline in order to get spots now for camping, apparently.

There are a number of motels and hotels around the lake where you can reserve rooms too, if you prefer to “glamp” as opposed to camping.

I hope that helps.

Let me know if you have any questions.

I’d be happy to meet you at Tahoe next year, if you choose to visit.

1 Like